NEW YORK, N.Y.—Construction workers and Morningside Heights residents gathered July 27 to remember Angel Espinoza, who was killed July 12 when he was hit on the head by a beam that fell 12 stories from a scaffold being dismantled on the roof of a Riverside Drive building. He was the fifth construction worker in the city to die from on-the-job injuries this year, said New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health [NYCOSH] Director Charlene Obernauer.
Espinoza, 28, had been part of the crew repairing the facade of International House, an independently owned residence for “competitively selected scholars and young professionals from around the world,” many affiliated with Columbia University. He is survived by his wife and three children, an 11-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a baby.
Born in Ecuador, Espinoza started working in the building trades when he was 16. He immigrated to the United States in 2011, and lived with his family in the Rossville neighborhood in southern Staten Island.
Espinoza’s brother Carlos, who also lives in the city, was unable to attend the memorial, held on the Claremont Avenue side of International House, but passed on a statement that was read. He said he wants justice for his brother and does not want this to happen to anyone else, not for anyone to go through the same pain that he and his family are going through. If anyone is found guilty or negligent, he added, he does not have resentment against the guilty, he just wants justice for his brother.
The city Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order and a violation to the contractor, Pratt Construction & Restoration, for “failure to safeguard all persons & property affected.”
Espinoza’s death was an all-too-familiar tragedy to union members and job-safety activists at the memorial. “Ninety-Five-percent of these deaths occur on nonunion job sites,” Obernauer told LaborPress.
Ninety-Five-percent of these deaths occur on nonunion job sites. — NYCOSH Director Charlene Obernauer
“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Reinaldo Torres, an organizer with Sheet Metal Workers Local 28. On union jobs, he explains, workers have extensive safety training, and “because we have stewards, there’s somebody on the job a member can go to if there’s a problem.”
The city construction-safety law enacted last fall is a good start, he added, but there has to be more enforcement and accountability, or “the contractors aren’t going to comply.”
Kyle Haver, chair of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition’s safety and health committee, showed photos of nonunion workers in the neighborhood removing garbage bags of asbestos while wearing T-shirts, with no protective gear, and of others walking on angled rooftops while wearing harnesses that weren’t tethered to anything.
“It’s up to us to say these workers aren’t expendable,” said Assemblymember Ari Espinal (D-Queens). A bill she sponsored that would make criminal negligence that leads to a worker’s death or serious injury a felony and raise the fine for it from $10,000 to $500,000 passed the Assembly in June, but its state Senate version never got a hearing.
“These contractors, a worker gets killed, and the fine they get is $10,000,” Eddie Jorge, an organizer with the union-backed New York Community Alliance for Worker Justice, told LaborPress after the memorial. The laws would have more teeth if the city could pull licenses and contracts from unsafe contractors, he added.
“We’re going to pay our respects to any worker, regardless of whether they’re union or not,” he continued. The biggest tragedy, he said, is that Espinoza’s baby son “will never know his dad.”